A few months back I wrote a post called “Does Fidelity Matter”. I considered the question of whether or not fidelity in audio/visual media (meaning faithful recreation of the source – and having nothing to do with marriage in this context) was still important in an age where convenient formats were increasingly dominant. In that post I concluded that fidelity still matters, but to a shrinking minority of purists like me (and even I don’t truthfully fall into the realm of the faithful, since I listen to compressed music and occasionally watch Time Warner Cable’s near-unwatchable on-demand offerings). For the mainstream user, music compressed to 8% of its original data size, compressed video on YouTube and 2-inch screens seem increasingly acceptable.
But my original thought (before I got sidetracked by my interest in home theater) was actually whether fidelity mattered in a different segment of digital media – information. News. I had been hearing (and continue to hear) that “old media”, (which in my view means professional producers and reporters of news content) is dead dead dead, and is being replaced by newer formats and distribution venues. The ones that get mentioned the most frequently are Facebook and Twitter (but before they were the soups du jour, the same commentary existed about blogs).
I thought about a few things as I considered a world where Facebook and Twitter replaced the New York Times, 60 Minutes and NPR. I am an active user of both of these services, and find each valuable for certain parts of my digital life. But as I thought about this, I couldn’t shake the idea that if Facebook and Twitter are the substitute we’re getting for our traditional media sources, we’re getting an unbelievably raw deal.
User-generated content is fascinating and, in certain circumstances, of intense value. If I want to pick a restaurant, I’m likely to turn to user-generated sources. Problem with my computer (or blu-ray player…)? It’s far more likely that the answer lies in a forum, rather than hope that a professional has taken the time to address my particular concern. User-generated content massively expands the scope of what gets covered. Whereas Frank Bruni might refer a restaurant every week (and who knows if he happened to be there on a particularly good or a particularly bad night?), I can read 200 reviews on Yelp for wherever I’m hoping to go (at least if I’m going out in San Francisco or south of 14th Street in New York). There’s no question that huge value is generated by enlarging the corpus of subjects covered by UGC.
But in my view the fidelity of news goes down a lot when it’s generated by the consumers of news media rather than the producers. There’s more of it, no question. And it’s potentially faster-moving, and that can be good too. But on issues that matter, the likelihood of a random person generating accurate, thoughtful coverage is, in my experience, dramatically lower than what I think we can reasonably expect from trained, full-time reporters and editors.
An example frequently brought up to illustrate Twitter’s world-dominating awesomeness is the plane crash in the Hudson River in January. I, like most users of Twitter, heard about the crash on Twitter first, at least 15 minutes before the story broke on the networks or major online media sites like CNN.com or the New York Times’ website. And that’s great. Except for one problem. The first tweet I saw that mentioned the crash had the plane landing in the Bronx. The second had it landing in upper Manhattan. Then the Bronx again. Eventually the famous twitpic image came up and the Twitter zeitgeist figured out that the plane had landed in the Hudson. And indeed, it was still a few minutes before the story was mainstream knowledge.
But to me, this is a real question – how much fidelity do we sacrifice by crowdsourcing our news? Are we as a culture satisfied with the tradeoffs we make in accuracy, thoughtfulness and thoroughness to get greater coverage or greater immediacy? I’m interested to hear viewpoints on this topic, but for my part I think we can ill afford to just crank up the noise level at the expense of quality. I say this not to be hidebound or backward-looking, but because the job of condensing a world of ever-increasing complexity is just that – a job. And I value the product that emerges from the work of professional journalists, even though it is (of course) imperfect in a variety of ways.
Perhaps the conclusion here is the same as the one I made in May – that fidelity matters only to a shrinking number of us, and that the rest are happy to live in an echo-chamber, but I think and hope this isn’t true. As I continue to read stories (mostly by parents) of how today’s teenagers know nothing of news or the world beyond celebrity and entertainment (of which there is no shortage on Facebook and Twitter), I find myself wishing not for my generation’s woeful relationship with news, but earlier generations who read the old, smudgy newspapers that, for all their flaws, had a higher signal to noise ratio than the deluge we experience today.